What’s the team news for tomorrow?
Gary Cahill has recovered so he’s back in the squad which is good. We’re still missing James McArthur of course and we’re still missing the longer-term injuries: Mamadou Sakho and Nathan Ferguson; Connor Wickham is still not 100% ready. But otherwise it’s quite a big squad by comparison going into end of last season, which is very positive.
How do you approach this game? You’ve got four points against City in your last five games against them.
I think you always approach games against Manchester City – certainly in the last four or five years – with extreme trepidation. That’s basically what you do because they are that good. However good we, ourselves, might be on the day when we work to try and thwart their attacking play and take advantage of the situation when we get hold of the ball, we know it’s going to be very, very difficult, just as it has been difficult for every team they’ve played this year. But the beauty is we have a chance. We have an opportunity, but we don’t expect it to be easy. We know we are going to be punished for any mistakes we make in terms of our tactical play and our technical play. But that’s par for the course when you’re playing the best team in the league, and I’m hoping we’re even going to be playing against the best team in Europe, because I’d love to see them win the Champions League.
What’s the aim for the rest of the season? You’re in a pretty decent position, but have a difficult run-in.
Yes, it was good that we got those points on the table early. Because to be honest, we always knew that the run-in – the last five, six, seven games was going to be very, very tough. We’ve had to go to Everton and Leicester, we’ve played Chelsea and now we’re playing Man City. Basically that’s probably as tough a programme as the Premier League can throw up at the moment. So we were aware of that. We knew there was a risk we could get found out, and we would not get as many points as we would have liked. But it’s important to keep competing in them and I think we showed that on Monday night that our competitive urge and our competitive edge is there. I even thought that the way the team approached the game was good. It didn’t get us the three points, unfortunately, but we know that that’s what we’ve got to keep doing and every single game has got to be approached in that way.
There is a social media boycott this weekend. Is the abuse of players something that you’ve had to deal with a lot more?
We have certainly have had our fair share of abuse to our players. In particular Wilf Zaha has been a constant target and on one or two occasions, it has even affected his mental state as one would expect it to do. In terms of the boycott I personally am 100% behind it. I really applaud the fact that people have decided to make this quite strong decision in order to turn their backs on social media, albeit for three days to start off with at least. It is a clear statement that people in football are just not prepared to accept that anonymous, vicious people really can say what they like, and abuse people in any way they like and cause the mental anguish that they obviously do with their tweets. We just don’t think is acceptable, and we want the media companies to do something about it. It’s encouraging to think that not only are the top football agencies, if you like, from UEFA downwards joining in but all the clubs obviously are 100% behind it. But now we see other sports joining in and adding their abhorrence at the situation. Because there’s no doubt it’s got worse. It hasn’t improved over a period of time, it’s not just going to go away unless people do what they’re doing on this occasion: taking a very, very firm stance and making it clear that we just don’t accept it.
Your contract is up this summer. How proud are you of what you’ve done at Crystal Palace? And can we expect to see you at Crystal Palace next season?
Yeah, I’m pleased with the way the four years have gone here, I’ve really enjoyed my time working with the club, so that’s a very positive thing. Obviously we’d always like to be higher in the table than we are, we’d always like to have a few more points on the board than we have. But I think realistically the work that I, my staff and in particular this group of players – because it’s a group of players who’ve been together a very long time – there aren’t many teams who would have as many players in their squad for this game tomorrow four years down the line as we have – so I’m very proud of that. As far as my situation is concerned, I’m very comfortable at the moment. I shall wait and see how things pan out in the next few weeks and then it will be quite easy to make a decision then as to whether I want to put myself up for another year of contract or whether I would prefer to move away and – if not going into retirement, at least leave the pressures of full-time employment at this level. So I haven’t made my mind up on that at the moment but I shall do of course in the coming weeks. At the moment I’m just pleased I’ve got these games to really occupy my thoughts, my mind more than the thoughts I would need to have to answer fully the question you just posed.
Man City have such quality in the squad, but is it potentially a good time to play them? They had the cup final and two Champions League semi-finals either side of the match. Mentally they could be preoccupied with that?
Yes, I can’t disagree with any of that. I think that the problem is, when you have so many good players and your way of playing is so well ingrained and it’s seamless when players change places in the starting XI, I don’t think it’s ever going to be a situation where you think: ‘right, this is a golden opportunity because they’re playing a weakened team’. We’ll be playing maybe a different team to those who did so well in winning the League Cup final and beating Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday night. So I can accept that people will look at it and think, ‘yeah this is a good time to play them’. But unfortunately when looking at the game, you’re looking at potential line ups and I’ve got no idea what’s going through Pep’s head, whether he will keep the same guys who have been playing going, or whether he will give some a rest and bring others in. Whichever way we look at it, we’re always looking at a very good team and a very good team formation, and a team which is more than capable of winning against any opponent, let alone a team like ourselves who are in the bottom half of the table. So I don’t doubt for one minute that we’ll playing against a Manchester City who are at full throttle. I don’t expect that they’ll be taking their foot off the gas and their eye off the ball to mix metaphors, in any way, shape or form. But I can’t deny that if I was Manchester City coach, I would definitely be thinking: ‘Blimey, this game coming in the middle of everything that’s been going on is not ideal’. I’m full of admiration really, for Chelsea and Manchester City, for Arsenal and Manchester United having to play these incredibly difficult games still in the midst of what is an important Premier League campaign for them. So we have it easy by comparison.
Playing against teams at the top – is there added motivation there for you and the players?
Yeah, that’s a good point, I think there is. That was evident the other night against Leicester. We knew that was going to be a tough game. They have some good players and of course they’re in excellent form. I think the way that we played and the way the game panned out, we could even suggest that on another day we might even have got a result from that game and had we done so we’d have deserved it. So certainly the motivation was there on Monday night to play a team of Leicester’s quality, and I’m sure it will be there tomorrow to play a team of Manchester City’s quality. These are things that could ease the trepidation. But unfortunately the trepidation will always be there because you know that the teams you’re playing against can punish you so quickly and so harshly for even the smallest mistakes. You don’t get away with anything and they don’t give you anything. So you’ve got to be at the very height of your game in every respect if you’re going to get anything from it.
Eberechi Eze played in a slightly different position against Leicester. What did you make of his performance there?
Well Eberechi’s a player that’s played in lots of positions. He’s a very talented ball player, a very good offensive midfielder. We’re trying to encourage him to be a good all-round midfield player. I don’t think it’s a problem playing him in a position slightly in-field because that’s where he spent a lot of his time for Queens Park Rangers. He even spent a lot of time centrally in behind the forward. So it’s just a different position that we asked him to play on Monday night in terms of giving us the set up to play Leicester that we wanted, but it certainly wasn’t asking him to do anything that he’s uncomfortable with, and if you ask him, of course, he prefers to be further infield than playing out wide.
So many superlatives have been used to describe this Manchester City side. What words would spring to mind for you to describe this current City side?
Hmm. What words spring to mind? Well I think first of all, they have a very clear pattern of play. They’re very organised, extremely patient with that pattern of play as well because it’s a pattern of play that’s obviously been well-drilled through lots and lots of time on the training ground. But it’s also a team and a squad that’s been put together in order to be able to perpetuate that. So the players that Pep’s been able to bring in have been the right sort of players for the style of play that he sees his team playing. I think the thing that probably impresses me most about them outside of the very obvious things: technically they are outstandingly good. I think the players’ understanding, their decision-making on the ball, their passing… It’s a joy to watch unless you’re trying to get a result against them on the other side. But I think the thing that impresses me perhaps more than that is the work-rate. I think it’s quite amazing. In the past, traditionally, your talented players – the ones who win matches for you because they produce goals. decisive passes, they score the goals – they’re the ones who quite often don’t do as much running as you’d perhaps like them to do; don’t make as many unselfish runs for the team as perhaps you’d like them to do; and certainly don’t sprint back to get into recovery positions as much you’d like them to do. Unfortunately for all of us who play Man City, Pep Guardiola’s got a team that does all of those things. In actual fact, what you could possibly have gained over them: ‘ok, we can’t match your technical ability perhaps or maybe you’ve got one or two players who are higher calibre that they can put out against you but we’ll run harder than you, we’ll fight harder than you, we’ll chase harder than you’ – I’m afraid that doesn’t work because they invariably win that statistic as well.
Pep Guardiola has half-joked that in the past that his success [at City] has been because they’ve been able to spend an awful lot of money on players. There’s some truth in that, isn’t there?
Well, I think the truth in that – I don’t know, many, many years ago… But basically speaking, people don’t come to watch football matches in order to look at the owners or chairmen. They certainly don’t come to football matches to watch the coaches or managers on the sidelines, they come to watch the players. Because the players, in actual fact, at the end are going to win you matches or lose you matches. So I think it’s a fairly common thought amongst us football managers that you can do the best you can with the players you have around you, but sometimes you are going to come across a team who has all the qualities or are as well organised as you are yourself, but they might have been able to put together a better and more talented group at any one moment in time. So certainly he’s right to make that point. But on the other hand, these players need someone to lead them. These players, however good they are – [Kevin] De Bruyne at this moment in my eyes is totally outstanding in everything he does. But you still need someone to lead him, you need someone to help him have the players around him that are working in the right sort of way. So I don’t think that Pep should underestimate the importance of the work that he’s done as a manager or coach. But of course it would have been harder if he’d not been able to sometimes with vacancies in his team coming up and positions he wanted to fill in order to keep the play going – if he’d not been able to sign those players or get those players. Maybe life would have been a bit harder. But I still think that with his work and the way the club is organised and operates, that their position is more-than merited and what’s more shows no sign of diminishing in any way.
One of their players catching a lot of attention at the moment is Phil Foden, who is homegrown. Do you think there should be an emphasis on clubs bringing through their own players?
It depends on what you mean by an emphasis. I think you’d be hard-pushed to find clubs in the Premier League today who don’t embrace the idea, embrace the theory that we need to produce players of our own, we need to use our academy which we’ve spent money on and worked hard with to get some players through to come up to the first team, which means we don’t always have to go out and buy a player when a position becomes vacant. So everyone’s obviously behind that. I would say there’s players in Pep’s team who get forgotten. I worked with a young Raheem Sterling at Liverpool and he was still pretty young when he went to Man City. And certainly in players like himself and Foden as an example, Kyle Walker as an example… I think we’ve seen those players grow. In that environment, Pep might say honestly that it’s the players around them that have helped, and I’m sure that’s true as well. I’ve got no doubt that his leadership with those players has been very, very important. We all know that to produce the levels of performance which is needed today to get into Champions League semi-finals and hopefully finals, you’re going to need an awful lot of athleticism, you’re going to need an awful lot of youthful energy and as a result you’re always going to be looking at players like Foden to come in and provide that for you.
Talking of youthful energy – is there a need for a refresh of the Palace squad in the summer?
Well we’ve talked about it for a long time. We talked about it last summer. I can’t remember what I said yesterday, let alone a year ago, but I’m pretty sure that going into this season we were probably talking about maybe we could sign some younger players and introduce some new faces to help the guys who’ve been here so long and introduce some youthful energy and perhaps running power. It wasn’t possible for us last year. We achieved it with one player, we got Eberechi Eze, who I think is an outstanding young talent and certainly the type of player the club is going to need moving forward. But we only introduced the one. There’s no shortage of intention or hope that that would be the case. And with so many out of contract, it’s obvious that either we’re either going to carry on as a club with exactly the group as we’ve had the last four year or there will be perhaps players coming in who will help the ones who’ve been here for so long by bringing a bit of competition and maybe bringing a bit of youthful energy.
How far away is James Tomkins from making a comeback to the matchday squad?
Well hopefully not too far. It’s a confidence factor as well as far as he’s concerned. But physically, he’s doing well at the moment. He certainly doesn’t seem to have lost anything that he had before the injury. But of course it was a nasty injury, and when you’ve got an injury to your eye, it’s not like coming back from a calf strain or a thigh strain. But I’m hoping we’re going to see him in the Under-23s on Monday, which would be his first chance at playing full-time football or 90 minutes of football for a long time. He’s been in training a couple of weeks – three weeks even, that’s gone well. It’s been progressing and it’s gone well. Now is the moment to say right, this is the closest we can get to throwing him in the deep end we can without putting him straight back in the team. Monday will be an important day for James. If he comes through that, and he’s confident he’s come through that, there’s no reason why we can’t expect him to be pushing for a place in the team in the last five or six games – however many [it will be after Man City].
You said Wilfried Zaha has received regular abuse on social media. Has there ever been an occasion where he’s asked for time away or you’ve had to check in on him given how much it sounds like it’s affected him?
No, I can’t say that. He’s a strong character, a resilient character. He’s never even indicated to me that it’s this has hurt me so much mentally that I can’t train or play football. But there’s no doubt that all the things that have gone on have had a serious effect on him. I find it very difficult myself to appreciate how much these players are able to take really, and how strong they can be in the face of such vile abuse from anonymous people. It’s tough enough if you’re confronted by someone who abuses you. At least then you’ve got the person in front of you, and you can argue your case or at least get a better feeling of why am I deserving this abuse. But all these anonymous people – we don’t even know who they are. The worst thing that’s happened in relation to social media for me was before a very important game at the end of last season, an important game for Aston Villa more so than us. We weren’t fighting relegation, they were. But the morning of that game Wilf woke up to some of the vilest abuse possible, and that certainly did affect him. He was mentally challenged by that level of abuse. But what really affected me was when they tracked down the person and they did track them down, it was an 11 or 12-year-old boy. It makes you wonder where society’s going. But what sort of platforms are these social media platforms that allow a 12-year-old boy who maybe doesn’t even know better, maybe he’s just aping older people around him – what sort of platform is that that you can get on and do these things? It’s frightening, really. It’s frightening for Wilf, the person who’s been abused, but it frightens me as well that the abusers are people of this nature. Let’s hope this [boycott] has some sort of effect. Let’s hope that these companies that run social media and have become extremely wealthy on the back of it they do start thinking that we’ve got to do more ourselves to regulate our site. That it’s not going to be quite so simple so that anyone at home in the anonymity of their study can say whatever they like to whoever they like.